Ex-POW brings Death March alive
Lewiston school kids honor Bataan survivors
It started with a simple question as Linda Dahl, a Lewiston
elementary school librarian, rode with Lewiston Patrolman Jon Petrie.
"Can you help me find out more about my father, who survived the Bataan Death March, and maybe find someone who knew him or what he went through?" Petrie asked.
His father, Wayne Petrie, 52, was Lewiston’s Postmaster when he dies in 1972 of cancer. Jon was 12.
Anything she could find could be shared with student, he agreed.
It seemed a simple lesson plan, a way to bring some of the reality of World War II to her students.
Two years, hours of research, writing and work by Dahl and her students, and two things happened:
A web site, www.lindavdahl.coml
And Leland Sims.
Sims, 83, of San Antonio, was one of the Bataan survivors the students discovered. And he had survived both the forced march on the Philippines peninsula of Bataan and the coalmines of Fukuoka Camp 17 on the Japanese mainland with Petrie.
Bataan is infamous. About 75,000
Americans and Filipinos were surrendered there April 9, 1942, by their American
commander after supplies ran out and the Japanese cut them off.
About 60,000, already weakened by lack of food and malaria, were forced to march for up to 24 days to prison camps as far away as 80 miles. They had no food, water or medical care. Some collapsed on the way and were killed where they lay. Some went crazy with the heat and lack of water and broke away from the line. They were also killed.
Ten thousand, maybe as much as 16,000, died on the march. Thousands more died of starvation, disease and torture in the next three years. Some estimates are that only a third of the men who were alive at the surrender lived to see liberation in September 1945. Many survived because the man who walked next to him held him up and kept him moving on.
That, Sims said, was the foundation for the slogan of the American Ex-Prisoners of War.
"We exist to help those who cannot help themselves."
Another slogan, worn on a patch on his vest, is perhaps better known:
"The battling Bastards of Bataan," it says. "No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam."
Lindsey Mellick was 12, a sixth grader at Whitman Elementary
when she first wrote to Sims. "She wanted to know what I did and where I
was at," Sims says.
Dahl got the names from a national POW organization, which wanted help tracing the men so their experiences could be documented. Her students got on the Internet. Writing letters to them personally wasn’t part of the assignment. It was to honor them, Mellick says.
Sims wrote back.
Two years later, he says he wanted to see if the letter really did come from a 12 year old girl in Idaho. Previously he had received a letter from a 12 year old girl, but by the time he was liberated she was 17!
Leland was on his way to a military reunion in Shreveport, La., he said, and Lewiston wasn’t far out of his way. He would meet this girl and the others who cared about his service to his country.
And he wanted to meet Wayne Petrie’s family.
Sims and Petrie shared the march, the transport on the "Hellship" Clyde Maru, a captured freighter, and then the train ride to the slave labor camp in Japan.
Work days were 18 hours long, work "weeks" were 10
days, with the 11th day designated "Sunday" by the Japanese
guards. Those days were reserved for cleaning the camp, punishment and standing
at attention for hours in the hot sun.
Before his death, Petrie said, "we lost at least a man a day to accident in the mine, starvation and brutality."
Petrie was down to 95 pounds when the war ended.
Sims, still tall and slender, says he weighed 160 pounds when he went overseas. He was told that he weighed les than 70 pounds when he arrived at the first military hospital, but he thinks it was closer to 80.
Sims brought a copy of the typewritten postcard that was sent to his mother while he was imprisoned there. It says, "Received letters. Glad to receive news and hope for more real soon. Send pictures. I am in good health don’t worry about me. Our quarters are comfortable, we have many recreations. Working each day for which we receive pay. Regards to family. Remember me to my friends and relations. Leland Sims". Only his name is hand written. The cards were given to them already typed, and they were forced to sign them - "or else".
Her grandmother told her that her grandfather would have
nightmares, says Mallory Petrie. But he never had a hateful feeling toward the
Japanese because he felt they were just doing their job.
There were some like that, Sims agrees. But there was one (guard) back in the coalmines he’d like to go back and settle things with. Even after 60 years.
Sims, accompanied by his daughter, Brenda MacDonald of San
Antonio, spent hours over the past week with Dahl and her former students, now
at Jenifer Junior High. And also with the Petrie family, along with another
Japanese POW survivor, Warren M. (Bill) Smith of Lewiston.
Sims has been amazed at the reception and the interest, he says. The students are equally amazed.
"I’m surprised how far we have come with all this and that Mr. Sims actually came up all the way From Texas to meet us", says Tesla Lindell.
"It was weird to sit down to lunch with fries and a hamburger and hear him talk about eating grasshoppers and watered down rice and soup," says Mellick.
"I never thought a summer project would lead to knowing people and understanding things. And helping these people be remembered," says A.J. Holden.
"It was cool, very cool," says Dakota Winter.
"Definitely more valuable than the average class", Josh Hartwig adds.
Michelle Tousley was the guiding force behind the project, sometimes coming in three days a week, and with Lindell and Mellick, demanding perfection of detail, Dahl says.
There was a reason, Tousley says, "People go through so many things, especially during war, and lots don’t get recognition for things they do. I want to make sure they get some."
Wayne Petrie died two months before his first grandchild was
born. Leland Sims helped the bridge the gap for the
"It’s just really neat to have a link now, to meet someone who was there," says Sarah Petrie, Wayne’s 19-year-old granddaughter.
"One thought that blows me away," Dahl says, "is what would he (Petrie) say if he knew there was a whole web site about him?"
"He’d probably say, ‘What’s a web site?’ " said Mallory Petrie, 15.
From Tribune article September 21, 2003 by Sandra Lee, Tribune reporter
Lee may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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